Jeremiah 4.11-12, 4.22-28
1 Timothy 1.1-2, 1.12-19a
Sunday 11 September 2022
\ ©Suzanne Grimmett
What shepherd would leave a hundred sheep and go in search of one?
A very, very foolish one. Imagine if a wolf came for the others while the shepherd was off looking for the one?
What woman would stop everything she is doing and clean and search her whole house for one coin? Well, either one with time on her hands or one who did not have so many coins that she could afford to lose one.
So Jesus may say, “Which one of you does not leave…or what woman does not search carefully…” as if these are universal behaviours, but they clearly are not.
So what else is going on here?
We can begin by noticing the numbers. 10 coins, 100 sheep. 10 and 100 are numbers symbolising wholeness. I think a case can be made that these stories are not so much about finding something as they are about putting things back together.
And what is being put together? Ultimately this could be what is described as the kingdom or commonwealth of God, a reconciliation between people, creation and the Divine, a union and oneness found in the relationships of deep loving unity of the Trinity into which we are invited.
That can sound very esoteric, so sometimes it is more useful to express wholeness as belonging or homecoming. Jesus also was clearly thinking of this kind of meaning when he speaks of sheep returning to the fold, a coin to its owner or, as in the famous parable that follows these, a wayward son who returns to a loving and joyful Father to be greeted by a massive welcome home party.
I believe we have a longing for belonging and wholeness. Yet so often in our endeavours to achieve it, we end up instead dividing and harming in ways that lead against the stability and security we crave.
Whilst not a popular viewpoint, our history and our scriptures tell us sin is always a dimension of who we are. That said, I find the term “original sin” laughable. There is absolutely nothing original about sin…nothing that has not been around before, causing the same wounding and separating us from one another, creation and God. To be truly original and creative, goodness…and the Spirit… is required.
Our capacity to keep hurting one another, combined with our desire for wholeness, is why the scapegoating mechanism has been the most powerful means of creating unity since the earliest human societies. When we can blame one person, or one group, for the lack of unity and wholeness, we create a false sense of belonging amongst all others as they seek to drive out the offending person or group. Nothing unites us so much as a clear-sighted belief that someone, some thing, some ideology or some group is the problem. Our righteous indignation against violence can so easily become violence against another, or else that simmering and destructive emotion…contempt.
These parables of Jesus speak powerfully against this false and violent means of creating wholeness. Instead of there being one who is to be excluded and vilified, we have stories of searching relentlessly for the one who is outside so that they may be returned to create the real wholeness where all the sheep are together, the coins collected, the children welcomed home…where everyone belongs.
Starkly, in creation we see the evidence of the disruption to ecosystems when one species is hunted out of existence and everything else fails to thrive. Searching for a lost species and returning it home is a way of restoring wholeness. An ecological example of how health and balance can be restored when what has been lost is returned, is the well documented case of the restoration of the Gray Wolf to Yellowstone National Park, and the observed flourishing of other life that has occurred since.
Despite such natural examples that point to our need of one another, we are slow to accept such interdependence. However, claiming this unity while ignoring the harm we do to each another and the earth is to engage in a kind of dishonest positivity or sentimentality. Wholeness remains beyond the reach of our individual efforts in a world divided against itself. Our societies and histories are complex and full of pain.
The problem is, sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking we can fix this pain by just pulling others into line, making them think more like us or act more like us. This is a dimension of purity culture where social media has replaced street corners to provide ways to perform your self-righteousness publicly. In the church through history we have made a habit of exclusion based on “right” belief or what we perceive to be more “enlightened” spiritual practices. The church should be constantly reforming and self-reflecting, but we need to do that by beginning with ourselves and recognising that sin is ever present in us all, and there is always the evil that will whisper to us that we just need to get rid of that person, that movement, that group and then we can be whole again. But evil always lies. Wholeness comes not through who or what we exclude but how we include and seek out what is lost.
Jesus’ parables point us to the upside kingdom he inaugurates by calling us to seek and find rather than exclude, recognising that the scapegoating mechanism only leads us away from the belonging we crave. Instead, Jesus himself becomes the final scapegoat, the forgiving victim who shows us a new way to love as we have been loved and forgive as we have been forgiven. It really is the heart of our faith.
There is much that can and should be said about forgiveness….including that it is not about forgetting past harms, and neither does it negate the need for personal boundaries for protection. But it is a non-negotiable tenet of our faith, because it is through Jesus, the forgiving victim, that the lost one is able to return home and we are, with all of our conflict and division, able to be restored to one another in love.
In times of turbulence or moments of social shift such as we may be feeling at the death of Queen Elizabeth after such a long reign, returning to the centre of our faith is, I believe more important than ever. So it is fitting, I think, to hear her Majesty’s words that point to power not being found in the crown, nor in armies nor great thinkers but in the one who became the final sacrifice, so that we can all return home.
In one of her Christmas broadcasts Queen Elizabeth said,
“History teaches us that we need saving from ourselves, from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world neither a philosopher or a general, but a Saviour with the power to forgive.”
May we put our faith in that same Saviour and have the humility to recognise our own need to be found, that we may know the joy of being reconciled, with all creation, in love and belonging.